New initiative encourages water consumption

By Amanda L. Chan

The first lady wants you to drink more water.

On a call announcing Michelle Obama’s newest healthy living initiative Sept. 11, Let’s Move! Executive Director Sam Kass explained that the White House is working with cities, private companies, and public taps to promote the message to “drink up.”

Participating companies include Brita, Poland Spring, Evian, Dasani, Voss and others, which will carry a “Drink Up” logo on their bottles, and participating cities include Chicago, Los Angeles County, Houston and, appropriately, Watertown, Wis., where the first lady is visiting Sept. 12 to kick off the initiative.

“Every participating company is only focusing on drinking water,” Kass said, and not on why its particular brand of water is “better” than another.

Kass cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data that show 43 percent of Americans drink fewer than four cups of water a day, and about one in four kids don’t drink water at all on a given day. An author of the CDC study, Dr. Alyson Goodman, said the first finding “likely indicates that many people either choose less healthy beverages to satisfy their thirst or drink little water daily.”

Noticeably absent from the new campaign to drink more water are the reasons why people should do so. Hydration is vital to a healthy, well-functioning body because it maintains body temperature at a normal level, promotes removal of waste from the body (through urination and perspiration), lubricates joints, and protects the body’s tissues. And drinking water instead of sugary drinks is a good way to decrease daily sugar consumption, which has been linked to obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Yet Kass explained that the tone of the initiative will purposely not emphasize these factors, unlike some past public health pushes. Instead, the campaign is focusing more on “being positive and not getting [into] details about what a glass of water can do,” he told reporters on the call.

A positive campaign “to inspire people to drink more water is the most effective way to get people to get water that they need,” Kass said. “We think people respond really well to positive messages … Water is the simplest, most accessible choice that people can make if they’re trying to make a healthy choice. Encouraging that is the most effective strategy.”

A look at the strategy

But is simply telling people to drink more water really the best way to promote health?

If the new initiative isn’t going to put a heavy focus on why people should drink more water, David Katz, M.D., founding director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center and a HuffPost blogger, doesn’t think so.

“I do think there are positive ways to move in that direction to emphasize what to eat and drink, but at the end of the day, there has to be [an understanding of why to drink water] instead of something more caloric,” he told HuffPost.

Katz, who is also the editor-in-chief of the journal Childhood Obesity, said the campaign is likely trying to get people to drink water rather than sugary beverages — and any health expert would agree that’s a good thing. After all, a recent Harvard study suggested sugary drink consumption was linked to as many as 180,000 deaths around the world and 25,000 deaths in the United States in 2010 alone.

But if kids start drinking more water but keep drinking soda, the purpose of the initiative would be undermined.

“There’s not an epidemic of dehydration, there’s an epidemic of obesity,” Katz said.

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, agreed with Katz, saying the push to “drink up” is probably another way of saying “stop drinking soda,” since “drinking water itself is not going to do anything about obesity.”

But if the initiative doesn’t clarify that people need to drink water instead of caloric beverages, then the message will be lost — and more along the lines of, “Gee, I need to drink more water. Oh, it comes in bottles, how convenient. And isn’t it nice that these bottled water companies are sponsoring,” Nestle said.

She speculated that possible pushback from soda and food companies — some of which own bottled water brands — could factor into why the “drink up” campaign isn’t putting a focus on quitting sugary drinks. (Evian water is owned by Danone Group, Poland Spring is manufactured by Nestle (no relation), and Dasani is owned by the Coca-Cola Company.)

Nestle also noted that the initiative could increase the amount of waste produced by plastic bottles.

The push does come as the United States is already experiencing an uptick in water consumption, with Beverage Digest reporting earlier this year that water is now the No. 1 drink in the country. Meanwhile, the amount of soda consumed by Americans has dropped 17 percent from its peak in 1998, the Associated Press reported.

Lawrence A. Soler, president and CEO of the Partnership for a Healthier America, explained on Wednesday’s call that while this trend is positive, more work should be done.

“There’s a lot of momentum we can piggy-back off of with this campaign, and that’s why we’re pushing it,” he said. …

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